The Anniversary

The O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack Turns 20

“Americana starts here.” So wrote Lloyd Sachs in his T-Bone Burnett biography A Life In Pursuit, about the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Joel and Ethan Coen’s madcap fugitive comedy film loosely based on Homer’s The Odyssey that made George Clooney a movie star and banjos fit for Triple A radio. “At least it does if that is what you want to call the music of Ralph Stanley, Dan Tyminski, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, the Fairfield Four and the many other artists introduced to millions of listeners by this endlessly enriching soundtrack.”

Sachs is right. For an audience that had never embraced country and the bluegrass-adjacent (and for whom names like elder statesman Stanley and Tyminski, who voiced Clooney’s songs, were still foreign), it did start there. The 8 million who bought the soundtrack, which turns 20 this weekend, rode O Brother, Where Art Thou? as gateway vehicle into a world that Robert Plant once described as “redneck hell” to the New York Times before he came to embrace it: Southern music, country music, old time hillbilly shit that felt somehow less important and not worthy of real estate in popular culture — or at least was assumed to be too conservative and unintellectual. O Brother carried a quick-picking banjo, Appalachian harmonies, and that high lonesome sound into the mainstream thanks to producer Burnett’s meticulous and anthropological crafting of traditional Depression-era material; the new recordings he oversaw fit in right alongside the vintage material, and the lot of it became a phenomenon. O Brother took the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2002 and was as close to monoculture as you could get in this century thus far. If you didn’t buy a copy yourself, your parents sure did.

The public’s embrace of “Americana” was born with O Brother, in that it gave artists like Welch a home in the collective understanding. It’s not that they hadn’t existed before, but there now was a way to categorize them that made logical sense, and gave enough distance from coastal visions of “redneck hell” for it to bleed from trad to trend. For many, it was the only countryish album they’d listen to: It was OK to flip from U2’s “Beautiful Day” to the Soggy Bottom Boys’ “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow,” from Destiny’s Child to Krauss. Of course, it birthed bands, too, whether by allowing them space or providing the genetic tissue for them to even come to be. Everyone from the Avett Brothers and Nickel Creek to the Lumineers found their rhythm or place in its wake, and the banjo got a romanticized makeover in the court of public opinion. And everyone else who knew the richness and depth of this music finally had a chance to be heard.

Hilariously, the band that ended up having the biggest success off of O Brother‘s Americana wave — Mumford & Sons — wasn’t even American, and now they’ve moved on to some version of arena rock with a kick drum. Still, the massive success of their string-band-for-chaps music came in through the door that O Brother cracked open and albums like Moby’s Play, which used extensive samples from early folk and field recordings, brought into daily consciousness. Oddly enough it was partly Welch, an associate producer on the soundtrack, who still had to hop through years of various authenticity hoops that perhaps O Brother should have assuaged: early lukewarm reviews of Time (The Revelator) proved to be a lesson not to let a measure of one’s birthplace or genealogical “cred” dictate a critical dialogue about an album (almost every pan mentioned her upbringing in Los Angeles and Manhattan as some sort of demerit).

Movie soundtracks have had a way of warming popular culture up to a musical form that felt previously unreachable — after 1997’s soundtrack to Buena Vista Social Club was a broad success, Cuban music sections became commonplace in record stores. Bluegrass, at least in the short term after O Brother‘s release, garnered a renewed interest and sales power, and the album’s label, Lost Highway, a cultural cred (sadly, neither lasted — the sales or the label, that is). More recently, A Star Is Born helped catapult Americana once again, thanks to another crew comprising Nashville’s finest, like Natalie Hemby, Jason Isbell, Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna, and Aaron Raitiere. As for O Brother, it’s telling that another country-rich soundtrack that came out the same year, Coyote Ugly, only worked its way into acceptance after being privy to eventual cult favoritism, despite strong performances from ace vocalist LeAnn Rimes.

The one corner of the world that O Brother did not hit, though? Strangely enough, it was on country radio. These songs — of Maybelle Carter, of Jimmie Rodgers — were at the core of Nashville and the tradition built there, a tradition that should have been met with open arms, perhaps repairing a fissure between “purity” and pop that had been expanding exponentially since the first dollar was made on Music Row and Shania Twain’s navel appeared on CMT. Country radio rejected “Man Of Constant Sorrow” in favor of a new wave of post-9/11 jingoism like Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning.” The highest it hit was #35 on Hot Country songs, which left some veteran radio programmers shaking their heads in the same way they did nearly two decades later with “Old Town Road.” It was popular everywhere, so why couldn’t they embrace it?

In a March 2001 issue of R&R, the now-defunct radio trade, a full page ad ran: “O Radio, Where Art Thou?” it asked, listing off a few of the paltry stations that had signed on to place “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow” in regular rotation. If you have to beg to get a worldwide phenomenon on board, it’s because there’s firm resistance, a marriage to the status quo. Nashville doesn’t build it? Nashville is certainly not going to let it break.

There’s no doubt that Americana was born because of the music surveyed by O Brother. But what feels equally significant is how a movie that was created on the fibers of country and bluegrass music further cemented Music Row’s infamous reluctance to bank on anything other than a sure thing that comes from inside its own controlled walls. The Grammy wins didn’t invite success, either — if anything, it was a symbol of what would become a permanent divide between Nashville and broad critical acclaim: just one glance at this year’s Recording Academy nominations can find Mickey Guyton, a voice who can barely get a lone spin on country radio despite almost universal praise for nearly a decade, up for her song “Black Like Me.” Even after O Brother took the top honors at the CMA Awards (a faulty organization that only occasionally gets it right by chance), it didn’t move the needle, just like it didn’t with Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour sweep, to cite another enormous star who can’t seem to get a spin in the genre she reinvented for an entirely new generation.

Perhaps the subject matter of O Brother was just a little too close to home — exposing imbedded white power structures and a time-honored tradition of piggybacking on Black culture and then expunging actual Black artists from the history books or modern canon. Like most Hollywood exports, O Brother managed to become a pastiche of what it was pastiche-ing, anyway: the all-white performers on the stage at the Grammys, rewriting this corner of the genre into even more increasing whiteness, better efforts aside. Despite that, according to research from Dr. Jada Watson, the O Brother soundtrack was still the only album that included songs performed by artists of color to win Album Of The Year at the CMAs in the past two decades.

In many ways, O Brother was supposed to be a bridge, and it was: It lifted traditional sounds into the mainstream and gave misfit music both a home and a marketing tool to sell it. But in others, it hovered precariously on the last plank between Music Row and its potential to be something that looks both backwards and forward, not just straight to the tailgates, tanlines, and the eternal party. As Lloyd Sachs said, O Brother is where Americana started. And that’s exactly where country radio left it.

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